Black British Actors Making Waves in Hollywood

Colin Salmon attends the Royal World Premiere of 'Skyfall' at the Royal Albert Hall on October 23, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Eamonn McCormack/Getty Images)
Colin Salmon attends the Royal World Premiere of ‘Skyfall’ at the Royal Albert Hall on October 23, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Eamonn McCormack/Getty Images)

Black British actors are taking Hollywood by storm. In recent years more and more have been cast in on-screen roles, not just in big budget U.S. films but also on American television.  In fact, nowadays it is highly likely a Brit will be found starring in a major Hollywood movie or hit TV series. Currently, U.S. television boasts several black British actors who are regular cast members in popular shows like Homeland and Game of Thrones.

“I love British actors,” says Brooks Jackson Colyar, a Los Angeles-based agent who represents actors and comedians. “I am fascinated they can take that accent and turn it into everyday American English,” she adds.  Black British actor David Oyelowo, 36, is a classic example. Born in the Oxford to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo was best known in the UK for playing an intelligence officer in the television drama series Spooks.

He decided to quit London for Los Angeles in 2008 and hasn’t looked back since. For the past five years Oyelowo has worked back-to-back. Last year he broke out in big roles such as the villainous Steven Jacobs in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and then the preacher in The Help.

This year the ambitious actor has been in heaven. Oyelowo has starred in George Lucas’ Red Tails and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy. He’s received rave reviews for his performance in the indie flick, Middle of Nowhere, and has ended the year with a sterling performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln ahead of the release of Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise.

Oyelowo is not alone. Other notable examples include Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Adrian Lester, Colin Salmon, Eamonn Walker and Naomie Harris — who have all starred in box office hits. Others, such as Idris Elba, Marsha Thomason, Ricky Whittle and Marianne Jean-Baptiste have achieved considerable success on American television.

Despite some reservations these roles could have gone to homegrown talent, most in the industry welcome actors from across the pond. “It’s great when any black actor works and they are all phenomenal talents,” says Sheryl Gripper, founding executive director of Atlanta’s annual BronzeLens Film Festival.

Screen and stage actress Sheryl Lee Ralph agrees. “I welcome the kind of black talent we see coming across the pond,” she said. “I only wish we could go over there and work but the door doesn’t seem to be open to us.”

This begs the question why are so many black actors quitting the UK to re-launch and reinvigorate their careers in America.

David Oyelowo attends TheWrap's Awards Season Screening Series Presents 'Middle Of Nowhere' on November 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images for TheWrap
David Oyelowo attends TheWrap’s Awards Season Screening Series Presents ‘Middle Of Nowhere’ on November 20, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images for TheWrap)

One explanation is that the UK is a smaller market, which in itself means its film and television industry can’t compete with the Hollywood machine. So although Britain has a strong theater culture [often used a training ground for young actors to hone their skills] as well as several long-running television shows, its film industry is lagging behind Hollywood productions.

“Hollywood around the globe is seen as the central honeypot for those looking to gain global recognition for their art,” says Femi Oguns, founder and CEO ofIdentity Drama School, Europe’s first ever black drama school, and acting agency, Identity Agency Group. “For that very reason it attracts actors from all walks of life, British black actors included.”

Money is also a factor. Not only do Hollywood movies have higher production budgets than British films, they have significantly more leverage to spend on marketing and distribution.

Though, others say the problem isn’t solely about economics but race. Acclaimed black British actor David Harewood, 47, who stars in the hit U.S. drama Homeland, has spoken publicly about the lack of meaty on-screen roles and opportunities for black actors in the UK.

In January, Harewood said he was forced to go to America to win a starring role. “Unfortunately, there really aren’t that many roles for authoritative, strong, black characters in this country,” he said at the London screening of his hit show Homeland.

Oguns agrees that the UK industry has more work to do. “The opportunities in the UK for black actors are few, steadily improving, but limited,” he says. “To some degree at times it feels as though we are still stuck in the dark ages, where the color is seen before the ability.”

However, up-and-coming black British actor Lanre Malaolu, 22, says there are still viable options in theater and UK television. “I believe there is work here, you just have to fight against a lot of people to get it.”

Malaolu, who has recently completed a stint at the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company, says he may consider pursuing openings stateside at some point in his career but, “I feel like my work here is far from done.”

And of course Hollywood is as susceptible to racial prejudice as everywhere else.  Speaking at the Sundance film festival in January, Spike Lee said he made his latest flick, Red Hook Summer, on a low budget partly to avoid Hollywood. “They know nothing about black people.”

So it may just be that Hollywood has a way to go but the British TV and film industry is still catching up.

article by Kunbi Tinuoye via

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